Helping students learn how to learn: That’s what most educators strive for, and that’s the goal of inquiry learning. That skill transfers to other academic subject areas and even to the workplace where employers have consistently said that they want creative, innovative and adaptive thinkers. Inquiry learning is an integrated approach that includes kinds of learning: content, literacy, information literacy, learning how to learn, and social or collaborative skills. Students think about the choices they make throughout the process and the way they feel as they learn. Those observations are as important as the content they learn or the projects they create.

“We want students thinking about their thinking,” said Leslie Maniotes a teacher effectiveness coach in the Denver Public Schools and one of the authors of Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. “We want them reflecting on the process and the content.” Inquiry learning works best on longer, deep dive projects when students have to create something of their own out of what they’ve found.

A good example is a long term research project. There are several common stages in longer projects and researchers have studied how students feel, think and act around the different stages. Students initiate the project, select a topic, explore it further, begin to formulate an approach, collect specific materials relevant to a focus and finally present on their findings.

During the process, students will go through different stages of emotions. They might feel uncertainty as they begin, optimism when they select a project, then confusion or frustration when they’ve gathered a lot of information and don’t know where to go with it. As they begin to sift through the information, they gain a sense of clarity and direction and begin formulating and executing the project. By the end of the process, they’ll have a sense of satisfaction or disappointment on the outcome of their presentation.

[RELATED READING: Creating Classrooms We Need: 8 Ways Into Inquiry Learning]

Understanding how students may feel as they move through the stages of inquiry offers educators the opportunity to intervene at critical moments when frustration threatens to derail them. Research shows that letting students spend longer time exploring a topic before choosing helps them choose something worthy of inquiry. “Jumping right into identifying a question leads to low level learning,” said Maniotes. She offers specific and simple tools to help guide the inquiry learning process.


  1.  An Inquiry Community is the class itself. Each member is exploring a topic related to the same class unit and students can help one another clarify ideas. “All of this is set within the social context of an inquiry community,” said Maniotes. “We value that community and we’re using all these other tools to inform the level of conversation we might have within that community.”
  2. An Inquiry Circle is a small group where students can talk to one another around a specific topic that fits within the umbrella of the broader class unit. Inquiry circles are a place for students to talk out all their wild ideas and work best when instructors leave them alone.
  3. The Inquiry Journal is one of the most powerful tools in the inquiry learning repertoire and should be utilized throughout the process. It’s a place for students to reflect on both the process and the content they discover as they go along. It’s important to emphasize to students that the journals should be used to reflect on how he or she learns best and what feelings come up at different points in the process. It’s meant to give them a moment to stop and think about what they’ve read and why it’s important. The journal can also be a good bridge between the student and instructor.
  4. The Inquiry Log helps students to keep track of the learning journey and every choice, change in direction or exciting moment along the way. “When they are able to see where they came from and where they got to it is very powerful for them,” said Maniotes.
  5. The Inquiry Chart is a great tool to help students identify a central question. They can chart, brainstorm and map their ideas in many ways. Getting them down on paper can help visualize what areas of research are well fleshed out and would make good focus points and which are tangential. Part of inquiry learning is teaching students how to make good academic decisions on resources and content, as well as recognizing when persistence is needed to dig deeper.

Taken together these five tools, which are deceptively simple, can give students the experience of deeper inquiry, insight into their own learning habits and preferences, as well as the experience of working through emotions that arise during the process. All these experiences help them to encounter the next challenge effectively, even when not being asked to follow a rigid process.

[RELATED READING: How to Fuel Students’ Learning Through Their Interests]

Inquiry learning should also be a social and language-based process. “Inquiry tools support English language use,” said Maniotes. “Students are able to use authentic language and they are constantly speaking, reading, writing, and viewing throughout the process.” It also helps to set clear expectations for the project and to routinely use the tools so students recognize their function. When instructors reflect on how the tools are used at various points, modeling meta-cognitive processing about how the tools support the inquiry process, students do more of that too. “If students hear that kind of talk then they know how to do it themselves,” said Maniotes.

The tools also give instructors a way to assess student learning along the way. This type of formative assessment gives teachers a chance to intervene and shape the inquiry process or offer encouragement. The journal and log especially tell a teacher a lot about the process each student went through to arrive at a final presentation, offering far more data points for assessment.

5 Tools to Help Students Learn How to Learn 26 September,2013Katrina Schwartz

  • Best

    Help me align this with real curriculum. Students take upper level Marths largely because they need to for some entrance requirement. A few students are mathematically curious but most are jumping through a hoop. Id absolutely love to teach kids something they actually want to know about. But I have this thing called a curriculum. Few ppl are curious about reciprocal curves. Someone please show me what this looks like in classes where we are handed a curriculum that has many units that are less than inspirational.

    • Check out http://www.Touchstones.org. Touchstones has developed inquiry and discussion based programs for ELA, History, Math, and Science. For ELA in particular, Touchstones discussions align to greater than 95% of the Common Core and specific state standards underlying the curricula.

  • kellygh5

    We call this a book report, class project, journaling etc. All things I did in school & my kids have been doing for years. Sounds like just another way to make the CCSS sound revolutionary and inspiring when its anything but!

    • teachercoach

      A book report is not inquiry learning. It is a report on a book that was read. Now if a student read a book which made them question a topic and want to find answers or create a product or investigate a problem and work to find a solution, that would be inquiry. There is a big difference between a student reporting on a book and using that book as a springboard to deepen and broaden the student’s own learning.

      • kellygh5

        I’m clear on what a book report is and inquiry based learning. I stand by my comment.

        • edu4u

          Actually your comment shows that you don’t know what inquiry based learning is. Please help the dialog along with constructive comments or questions instead of posting opinions based solely on your experience in elementary school from 20+ years ago. If you were in an inquiry based classroom your teacher would ask you to turn your comment into a question and help you on the path of exploration so that you truly knew what you were talking about instead of “skimming the book the night before your report was due and then trying to pass off your thoughts as fact.”

          • kellygh5

            You can call me ignorant and not like my opinion, as you have done, but please don’t criticize with advice you do not follow. If you would like to help the dialogue, perhaps you could engage in some inquiry of your own regarding my position? Passing judgement about my experience(s) & knowledge, based on assumptions and no inquiry, is defensive and intellectually dishonest. My brief remark following Teachercoach did not acknowledge the attempt to be helpful. Thank you.

          • Lesliekm

            Hi all! Leslie Maniotes here… I’m excited about this article. The point is about HOW you use the journal, log, community and inquiry circles to help students reflect on strategies that help them learn. It’s true we have been doing some of these things for a long time, but I have to ask how do we use these tools to impact learning? The Guided Inquiry approach described here was not born out of a need indicated by the Common Core, but a creative project over years of work connecting the research about how people learn through inquiry to how we can better design learning experiences to make them more powerful for our students. Consider this coming from the perspective of the learner. We are trying to help educators to get students to learn how they learn, so that journaling isn’t something they only do in school, but it is something that they know how to use, when it is helpful and how it helps them as a life-long learner. Hope that helps. Thanks for the support and for helping change learning in schools so that it is powerful and engages students.

  • ak

    I don’t have a response to any comments before mine. In fact I am as ‘at a loss’ as other respondents as to how I would apply this to Grade 10 Mathematics (for example) BUT I WILL SAY THIS: there is definitely a need for an activity/programme such as this that makes learner’s conscious of their learning, the way their brain works, the emotional component of their learning, etc. So I’ll take what I can from this very pie-in-the-sky article and. Try to bring it to my learners’ level.

    • Lesliekm

      Hello AK, Maybe the book Guided Inquiry Design: A Framework for Inquiry in Your School could help you. This book is not ‘pie in the sky’ but provides teachers with a framework to organize inquiry around student learning. The framework is grounded in the research on what we know about students learning through inquiry. Just as you note, there is great importance in students being conscious of their learning and the emotional aspects to learning. This design framework/program addresses the thoughts, feelings and actions students can take when learning through inquiry. It helps teachers to assist students in the process so that they learn how to learn and reflect on how they learn along the way. The tools are embedded within that larger framework and, when used within that framework, can help students to learn how they learn.

      Guided Inquiry can be used in Mathematics, especially when doing research on a mathematical concept in order to understand that concept, idea or theory. Not so much, when they are going through the motions and applying algorithms to solve problems. I think it can also be useful when students are working to think like mathematicians and use the discourse of that discipline. Best of luck!

  • christiancollege.vic.edu.au

    The tools you have given in your post are simply perfect and are very useful. This will surely help many students to learn.

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  • vcontents

    I came to know about your blog through my friend at college counselling session and I am in love with yotu blog. These five tools are really great.
    I am going to use these tools.

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  • MBA

    I’m a parent from suburban NY where the school district is really pushing PBL, particularly in the high school I have a daughter who is struggling to learn this way, and that is how I stumbled upon this link of tools to help students learn how to learn. The teachers are assigning the “problems” but they are not giving the students the specific guidelines on how to solve the problem. This is a huge problem for my daughter who suffers from a form of anxiety called intolerance of uncertainty. She is gifted in her capacity, but cannot may minor decisions that may cause her to come up with an incorrect answer. Your list of inquiry strategies may help, so thanks for posting. I’ll definitely bookmark your blog.

  • miranda

    I’m a Chinese teacher, and I hope to exchange teaching ideas with you. Thank you.

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  • Endre

    My students learn English using my pedagogic methodology. I call it Endre Polyak pedagogic methodology.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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